Saturday, May 23, 2009

Sacred Demise: A Book Review

Carolyn Baker's newly released book Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Collapse is the first book devoted entirely to the psychological and spiritual aspects of today eco-nomic challenges. I am eager to recommend it to all helping professionals and others wanting to deal with the difficult inner work involved in the transition that's taking place around us whether we are embracing it, fighting it, or denying it.
Author, adjunct professor in history and psychology and creator of the Speaking Truth to Power website, Baker draws on a wide variety of traditions and backgrounds in crafting her thoughts on this vital subject and includes many heartfelt insights she has gained from her personal inner journey into the troubled waters of our time, never flinching to delve into its hard truths and our role in the challenges ahead.
As a practitioner you may not agree with particular points in her book and you may find sections emotionally disturbing, even difficult to read. But the significance of this book is that Carolyn lays bare the issues we must confront in ourselves and help our clients to confront if we are to find the inner equanimity needed to address the future with the confidence, wisdom, creativity, and effective action that is demanded of us.

I see reading this book as a doorway to the inner reflection we each need to do and help our clients to do.

Each chapter actually concludes with a Reflection and a blank page for Notes. I found these to be not only personally valuable but also useful tools for sharing with clients.
Because I had the honor of writing the Forward to this book, instead of describing its contents in more detail, I invite you to read the Forward. Then I hope you will take the opportunity to read Sacred Demise. I will look forward to your thoughts and comments, both as someone who faces these issues yourself and as someone who will be on the front lines of helping others.
For those for whom it will be helpful, I have created 6-hours online Continuing Education (CEU) self-study course for this book with an accompanying Course Guide. It's available for an introductory price of $20 (plus the cost of the book, which can be purchased separately through
amazon or other sources either in print or as an e-book). Contact me if you would be interested in receiving these CEU's.
To a sane and sustainable future.

Sarah Edwards Read more!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Eco-Anxiety: Are You Encountering the Negativity Challenge?

I've noticed a common challenge in talking with my spiritually-oriented friends, colleagues, and clients about the needs for addressing the psychological aspects the environmental, economic, and psychological aspects of climate change and resource depletion. They consider such topics to be negative thoughts they don't want to contribute to.
I was discussing this conundrum with my friend and colleague Carolyn Baker because her excellent book, Sacred Demise, for which I wrote the forward, is the first book that addresses the inner, spiritual aspects of these very real, live-changing threats we're facing. Following our conversation she wrote a most thought-provoking essay on this issue for distribution.
I would very much like to know your thoughts, both to the topic and to Carolyne's response. Are you experiencing this kind of response from in your spiritually-oriented friends, colleagues, and clients? How do you approach it?
Soon I look forward to doing a review of Carolyn's book here on the blog. It is an invaluable resource for those of us who are helping with the Inner Work of Transition to a Sustainable Future.

by Carolyn Baker, Wednesday, 06 May 2009

There is no coming to consciousness without pain.
~Carl Jung~

Recently a friend told me that she had been talking up my book Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization's Collapse and suggesting to friends who are aware of collapse that they read it. On several occasions the response was, "Well, I don't want to engage in ‘negative thinking'. I'd rather keep a positive attitude and stay hopeful in the face of what's going in on the world." When I heard this, I smiled inside because this perspective in particular prompted me to write the book. One of my intentions in doing so was to help heal the false assumption that looking honestly at the end of the world as we have known it is synonymous with wallowing in negativity.
First, let me begin by assuring the reader that I do not recommend staring down collapse 24-7. Initially, admitting the reality of collapse is frightening and disheartening. People at first tend to become overwhelmed with fear or hopelessness or both. At that point, we can do one of two things: We can back off and process the facts in bits and pieces, interspersing doing so with living our everyday lives, doing things we enjoy with people we love, and savoring everything in life that nourishes us. Or, we can immediately engage one or more defense mechanisms in order to assuage our fear and cognitive dissonance.
The defense mechanism most frequently employed is denial, and unfortunately, some forms of spirituality are particularly useful in fostering denial because inherent in them is the assumption that accepting the demise of industrial civilization will drag one down into permanent depression, anger, hopelessness, or despair. While it is true that when first acknowledging collapse, one might experience such feelings, this does not guarantee that one must choose to take up residence in dark feelings, redecorate, change one's address, and permanently reside there.
I wrote Sacred Demise from the perspective of exactly the opposite experience. Did I feel negative feelings when first learning about collapse and its implications? Of course. Do I still have moments when negative feelings return and cloud what was an-otherwise normal day? Absolutely. But for me, acknowledging and preparing for collapse has been a sea-change in every aspect of my life, which includes a full palette of emotional and spiritual colors and hues. It has indeed made me more fully human and alive.
Rather than dragging me down into depression and despair, my acceptance of what is, has liberated me both emotionally and spiritually. As I have released false hopes of "fixing" civilization cosmetically or creating a mass consciousness change that might engender mass movements, I have gained much more energy for my work and for preparation for the daunting days ahead. In other words, I have gained a visceral understanding of "crisis as opportunity"-a cliché which I bandied about earlier in my life but could not fully appreciate until I allowed myself to deeply understand collapse and its ramifications.
Last month, Oregon Peak Oil researcher and blogger, Jan Lundberg, put out a call to his readers to respond on three questions regarding collapse:
What we are acting toward? What main outcome might we be looking forward to?
What do we relish leaving behind, as collapse begins or as it will be intensified?
What do we not want to leave behind unresolved; or, what needs to be done before it's too late to accomplish it?
This week, Culture Change published the results of the survey which I strongly encourage everyone to read. Here are a few responses:

• I look forward to the world breaking up "into small colonies of the saved" (Robert Bly). I look forward to a simpler, less neurotic life for me and my children. I would like to think that my children, while their chances of survival may be lower, their chances of happiness will be higher.
• The central change I would like to see is abandonment of the addictive, frenzied, exploitative American way of life in favor of a tribal, cooperative, relaxed way of life that puts responsibility toward other species and the Earth, as well as other human beings, first.
• An authentic life that is centered around people and not things. Revival of things spiritual and not material.
• Learning how to live with each other and within the larger community of our bioregions and ecosystems in a way that is intimate, honest, humble, and humanly and ecologically sustainable. That includes restoring viable community life, economic and ecological relationships and systems - living systems.

While none of us knows exactly how the collapse of civilization [as we know it]will unfold and while it is a process -- sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant -- whose beginning, middle, and end are and will be difficult to discern, the responses to Lundberg's questions are encouraging. First, they let me know that I'm not alone and that there are many more individuals than I could have imagined who are looking at collapse with the same optimism -and fear- that I feel when I contemplate it. Moreover, what I hear in these responses is not "negativity" but a deep longing for the possibility of living lives in harmony with all of the earth community and thereby experiencing the fullness of our humanity.
In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Sigmund Freud cultivated a very dark perception of humanity as he assessed the baser instincts largely repressed in the human unconscious. His pupil who became the famous Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, acknowledged the dark side of humanity which drove Freud to utter despair but unlike Freud, Jung came to believe that the dark side was a necessary ally in transforming human consciousness.
Jung spent decades studying myriad spiritual teachers, mythologies, and archetypes of the unconscious, and championed the sacred in nature and in the human psyche; however, Jung insisted that, "We must beware of thinking of good and evil as absolute opposites. The criterion of ethical action can no longer consist in the simple view that good has the force of a categorical imperative, while so-called evil can resolutely be shunned. Recognition of the reality of evil necessarily relativizes the good, and the evil likewise, converting both into halves of a paradoxical whole."
In other words, according to Jung, what we call "good" and "evil" need each other and in our binary thinking are opposite poles which in reality comprise the whole of the human experience; one needs the other for completion, and particularly for the transformation of consciousness. This is why Jung adamantly declared that "Mental illness is the avoidance of suffering." He was not referring to meaningless anguish but suffering which we endeavor to make sense of so that our genuine human purpose may be revealed to us.
In Sacred Demise, I repeatedly return to the question: Who do we want to be in the face of collapse? My friend Joanna Gabriel in a wonderful 2007 interview with Peak Moment TV beautifully articulates the question "Who Am I In A Post-Petroleum World". We both concur that these are the ultimate questions that collapse is inviting us to address in our individual lives and in our communities. I believe that it is futile to attempt to do so unless we are willing to struggle with all of the human emotions that emerge as we choose to stop avoiding the issue of collapse and with the support of trusted others, look at it honestly, welcoming it as a wise teacher and ally.
Sacred Demise painstakingly guides the reader in opening to the process of initiation that collapse is foisting upon us. The ancients and all traditional peoples know that without initiations, humans will not develop into mature, whole beings. In such cultures, it would be almost unheard of for anyone to speak of "wanting to avoid negativity" because all experiences and feelings are honored as necessary aspects of the human condition, without which humans cannot become fully conscious.
Among other things, collapse is asking us to grow up, to become initiated elders and thereby guide humanity in a revolutionary new direction. Near the end of Sacred Demise, I include an excerpt from a comment a reader of my website, Truth to Power, emailed me last year. He wrote:

I, for one, would find much more meaning from
putting food on the table that is truly needed and
sustaining rather than taken for granted. Food
that I raised or killed myself, or we ourselves,
or my neighbor did, and I bartered with him
for it. Much more so than the meaning Empire
tells me what I am supposed to get from sitting
here in my cubicle (my penultimate day today!)
rearranging little electronic blips in exchange for
money, which I am then supposed to exchange
not only for my sustenance, but also for all sorts
of diversions, to make me forget how meaningless
it all is.
I, for one, will find consolation in knowing
my neighbors - and in knowing that they are
there for me as I am for them, rather than living
amidst strangers, as most all of us do now. I will
find consolation in knowing that my ecological
footprint does not extend beyond my gaze.
That the things I consume do not cause death
and destruction beyond my ability to see and
internalize, rather than out of sight and mind as
now, and so much larger than any being could
ever have a ‘right' to.
I, for one, will find purpose in working closely
and cooperatively and communally with those
around me to provide our own sustenance,
comforts such as they may be, and entertainments
as time allows.
I have no illusions that life post-collapse will be
idyllic, nor that the transition will be anything
but ugly. But neither shall I miss that which
is dying - the dizzying complexity of our oil-drenched
lifestyles, a thousand channels of
nothing worth watching, mega-malls, motor
sports (how many kinds of insane are those!?!),
celebrities, glitter, growth, more, faster, bigger,
keep up with the Joneses but ignore the
sweatshops and the dying ecosystems, consume,
medicate, live large... then die. Where is one to
find a sense of purpose in all of that?
Whether one considers oneself "spiritual", atheist, agnostic, religious, or eternally skeptical, the task of accepting collapse and seizing the myriad opportunities it presents, is sacred work. As for me, nothing in my life has proven more positive or powerful.

Carolyn Baker, Ph.D., is the author of Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization's Collapse (2009 IUniverse). She manages the Truth to Power website at and has also authored U.S. History Uncensored: What Your High School Textbook Didn't Tell You.
You can order Sacred Demise here. Read book foreword at Read more!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Eco-Anxiety: Helpful and Harmful Additions

An excellent piece I highly recommend by Jason Bradford on "Healthy Addictions" prompted me to revisit my thoughts on addiction from a Nature-Guided Career Handbook and consider how I would expand them to focus on basis not only for today's growing sense of eco-nomic anxiety, but also on how socially conditioned compunctions lead to addictive behaviors that have and continue to contribute to the environmental problems we face thoughts on addiction from . In particular it promted me to consider
Just about any activity can become an addiction or obsession, I wrote, in my Handbook. Not only the things we usually think of, but also many things we habitually turn to as an escape from circumstances that are chronically unfulfilling substitutes for natural feelings of happiness so often find missing in our lives.
Some addictions are more obviously detrimental to our lives and our bodies than others, of course, but it’s not the specific activity itself that makes a certain behavior an addiction. It’s the role it plays for us, and our relationship with it. For example, buying new shoes, eating a piece of chocolate cake, staying late at the office, taking a spinning class, playing a computer game, or cleaning house can each be an enjoyable and/or useful experience, or they can become enslaving addictions we are compelled to do without regard for our natural attractions at the time.
Spending time reconnecting with nature and becoming accustomed to the experience of following natural attractions helps us to recognize this difference. First, however, one needs to have a somatic sense of what a natural attraction feels like. This is actually quite easy to recognize. For example, silently say aloud to yourself the colors of the words you see below:



Did you say the words Orange and Green; or did you say Green and Green? Either way, notice the differences you experience in your body as you try to read and say green when you are seeing orange versus when you read and say green when both the color and the word match. This subtle somatic response is an indication of how our bodies identify a natural attraction versus something we're not actually attracted to but have been taught or otherwise come to think we're attracted to. The particular somatic sensation one feels will differ from person to person. For some it might be in a tightness in the pit of their stomach, for example. For others it might be a pressure in their chest, their throat, or some other physical sensation.
With that sensation in one's awareness, the following table lists a few of the contrasts we and others have noticed between the experience of addictions and the experience of natural attractions.

You and your clients can take this chart with you into a natural setting of some kind (i.e. backyard, park, garden area) and spend some time there following your natural attractions (the Green/Green - G/G - sensations). Then pause to notice the differences between these experiences in nature and any addictive or obsessive activities plaguing you.
An example I have permission to share is from a client who was addicted to shopping. Whenever she'd had a tense, stressful day at work, which was often, she would treat herself with a trip to the mall on the way home to buy "a little something." Usually after a long week at work, she and her husband would spend Saturday shopping at their favorite stores. This pastime had resulted in a large and growing credit-card debt. It also meant their home had become cramped and was hard to keep organized and cleaned. So they were hoping to buy a larger house, but their credit wasn't good enough to qualify for a loan.
The relationship between this type of addiction and the ecological and economic problems we face today is, of course, obvious. But this couple is far more typical than we as a nation want to admit. We have been deluged for decades with advertising messages and appeals, even from our US Presidents, that shopping and borrowing are essential to the economy and downright patriotic. Ubiquitous messages tell us that owning more things is the answer to our problems. It will make us sexy, healthy, successful, and ... happy. Although there are reams of research that show this is not the case; that, in fact, such addiction to materialism is correlated instead with feelings of dissatisfaction, depression, and anxiety (see The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser).
But, as George Lakoff professor of linguistics and cognitive science points out, words heard repeatedly matter, and I mean the word matter literally. "Even words we hear casually and listen to incidentally, activate frames or structures of ideas that are physically realized in the brain," Lakoff explains. "The more the words are heard, the more the frames are activated in the brain, and stronger their synapses get - until the frames are there permanently."
So if we are to escape the compulsions to which words have misguided our desires, we must get out of their digital or mediated milieu and reconnect with the truth our somatic experience will remind us of.
In this case, after having my client identify the somatic sensation of a natural attraction, I invited her to spend some time in nature following her natural attractions; then to take a moment to complete a brief worksheet, re-"framing" in words her experience of what is attractive. At first this was difficult for her. She reported not having the time to go outdoors or that it too cold or too hot, or too windy or wet to be outside. But as I encouraged her to focus on how she could create attractive outdoor experiences (i.e. putting on more clothing, selecting an appealing time of day), she was eventually able to begin spending short interludes in nearby natural areas, following her attractions.
Several weeks later she volunteered to share an insight she and her husband had that past Saturday. They'd spent the day shopping for a new home entertainment system. She described their excitement as they explored the latest bells and whistles among their various latest models; how elated they felt as they drove home, proud owners of the new system they'd purchased. Then her tone shifted as explained how short-lived these feelings of elation had been and how tired she felt by dinnertime. Only hours after setting up the new equipment, she realized it had become meaningless to her. "You know, she said, "we didn't need this equipment. I wish we'd spent Saturday at the park instead of shopping. I would have felt relaxed and refreshed instead of burned out again."
Since then by preferring to pursue activities that are naturally attracted to them and leave them feeling "ful-filled," this woman and husband have identified a lot of activities that would qualify as what Bradford calls "healthy addictions," though I'd prefer to call the healthy attractions. They have taken classes together, traveled to unexplored nearby outdoor locales, even created new jobs for themselves, her inside her existing place of employment' him with a new company. In the process, they have saved enough money to whittle away at their debt. "I'm definitely not attracted to having a lot of debt," she told me, "but now I'm not even attraced to shopping unless I actually need something."
This experience, like that of so many other of my ecopsychology clients, illustrates a point made in a 1961 study by psychologists Keller Breland and Marion Breland called "instinctive drift:" once we remove ourselves or are removed from unnatural conditioning circumstances, we gradually "drift" toward those things which are instinctually good for us. This natural human tendency bodes well for our potential to move toward more environmentally responsible behavior. Because we are inherently part of nature, if unimpeded, we will inherently move toward that which is healthy for both us and the environment that sustains us.
Until it is possible to do this unconsciously within the context of culture expectations, the choice to move toward natural attractions instead of addictions and compulsions is one we personally can make by attending consciously to our sensory awareness. As time passes, we'll being to make such personal choices unconsciously again as our species once did so very, very long ago.

(c) Sarah Anne Edwards, 2009
Read more!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Predictions Becoming Realities: Are We Ready?

"What will global warming looking look like?" the LA Times headline blared, "Scientists point to Australia."
We had just returned from Tucson where we were doing a Training 4 Transition workshop and presentations on how to prepare for the effects of climate change, peak oil, and the ensuing economic instability to evidence that at least in Australia the predictions we've all been hearing about and too often avoiding are no longer future possibilities but current realities.

Prolonged drought and deadly bush fires, monsoon flooding, deadly mosquito-borne fevers, widespread wildlife decline, economic collapse of agriculture and killer heat waves -- epitomize the "accelerated climate crisis" that global warming models have forecast, the article declares.

And the psychological impacts are also just a we've been discussing here.

"Suicide is high. Depression is huge. Families are breaking up. It's devastation," Frank Eddy who runs a shrinking orchard told reporter Julie Cart, shaking his head. "I've got a neighbor in terrible trouble. Found him in the paddock, sitting in his [truck], crying his eyes out. Grown men -- big, strong grown men. We're holding on by the skin of our teeth. It's desperate times."

The article did not touch on what professional services are available to those suffering through such desperation. But it did point out, however, that:

- 200 Melbourne residents dying in a heat wave that "buckled the steel skeleton on a newly constructed 400-foot Ferris wheel and warped train tracks like spaghetti"
- days of temperatures at 110 degrees or higher with little humidity, and 100-mph winds,
- 4,000 gray-headed flying foxes dropping dead out of trees in one Melbourne park a quarter of Victoria state's koalas, kangaroos, birds and other wildlife dying from the heat
- entire towns destroyed in massive bush fires
- mile after mile of desiccated fields lying fallow
- 60% of the nation's produce farmers walking off their land or selling their water rights
- one rancher or farmer a week taking their own life and 14 dairy farmers committing suicide in the last five years

... and such dramatic anecdotal and empirical evidence hasn't sparked equally dramatic action from Australia's government.

Think that can't happen here? Think again. The climate in Adelaide where much of such suffering is occurring resembles much of our southwest, Los Angeles in particular. Other parts of the US are already suffering from severe weather anomalies at this very moment.

So the question is .... are we ready for this?

Are we ready personally? How are we preparing so that we as professionals can be available to help others instead of becoming paralyzed in our own desperation? Are we professionally ready? In this country known for its boundless opportunity, endless possibility, and rugged individualists, do we as helping professionals know how to assist our communities in adjusting to new realities such as these where choices are narrowed and even the rugged will face unimagined challenges?
Can we expect more of our government? What can we as both citizens and professionals do to assure a more immediate and effective response?
If you have been reading this blog, you already know a lot about what I and others have been doing. Safeguarding our homes as best we can. Setting up home and neighborhood growing possibilities suited to our locale, joining with others to restore resilience to our local communities, working to make needed policy changes, and learning nature-based psycho therapeutic methods for assisting our clients (and ourselves) to begin living more closely in harmony with our natural environment.
Still as I read and re-read this article, I sense the time to make such preparations is running out. I know we're all very busy. I know we're already stressed with other obligations and responsibilities. But just how important will our many other projects, plans, and duties be when we encounter what is already underway in Australia?
There are a wealth of resources here on this site already for responding to these challenges, but let's also share how we're preparing and support each other in our efforts.
We cannot do what needs doing alone.
Read more!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Eco-Anxiety: Breaking the Over-Consumption Habit

An obscure anomaly in our brains enables us to be tricked into denying what we truly want and pursuing a lifestyle that circumvents our well-being and contributes to the economic and environmental conditions we face today.

As Linda Buzzell and I point out in The Waking Up Syndrome, feelings of guilt and powerlessness often follow when we awakened to the fact our current way of life is not only unhealthy for us in terms of stress-related illness, but is also wreaking havoc on the planet and contributing to the ecological and environmental problems we face today.

These feelings may are becoming more intense now as we hear our President call for shared sacrifice over the years to come. How are we to understand and help others understand our role in the mess we're in without wallowing uselessly in guilt and despair? How do we extricate ourselves from a way of life that is ingrained into every aspect of our society? How do we find satisfying lives even as we sacrifice aspects of life we've valued but now must abandon?

I find that sharing the following explanatory background at opportune times combined with nature-based re-patterning activities can replace guilt with a realization that the way we're living now can't provide what we truly want from life, but that there are other satisfying ways to live. In this way we needn't continue blaming ourselves for our participation in the mess our species has created as long as begin to change the way we live now. Even if we can't reverse the damage, we can halt its progress. Here's the kind of background I try to provide. (Sources and citations are included here for professional references only unless further information is requested by my clients.)

How We Get Fooled into Believing We Want the Opposite of What We Say We Want

You have probably noticed there is a marked discrepancy between how we live today and how we say we would prefer to live. For example, we talk of wanting more time for family, friends and children, doing community activities, and pursuing personal interests, but we spend most of our time working to earn money so we can keep our lives as we know them afloat.

While we say we want to eat healthfully, exercise more and watch less TV, we live on fast food and crash in front of the tube. We say we want to stop to smell the roses, but instead we sit in hours of stalled freeway traffic and smell the exhaust.

By studying the relationship between the natural environment and our mental, psychological and physical health, Pioneering professionals in many fields from environmental psychologist Roger Barker to environmental educator Michael Cohen, entomologist Edward O. Wilson and Jungian analyst Marion Woodman are finding that this discrepancy arises because we are no longer attuned to the vast bioecological system of which we are apart.

We are endowed with inborn energetic connections to this natural system and are thereby naturally attracted to those aspects of life that will simultaneously sustain and support both us and nature as a whole (Cohen, 1997, pp 43-50), but once this connection is severed, we lose our sense of what we want and need and our desires can be easily subverted.

Disconnection from this web of natural attractions not only weakens us mentally and physically but also effects the system as a whole. (Cohen, 1997, p 67) In this sense we can see how the vast majority of our personal, social, psychological and environmental problems are nature’s way of calling our attention to this disconnection and attempting to bring us back into alignment. They are either a plea for help, a release from, or a sedative for, the lack of natural gratification that is our birthright as part of the natural world.

In reviewing history, we can see that our disconnection from nature began long ago. As Jeremy Rikfin points out in The End of Work, the Industrial Revolution was especially alienating. Leading scientists, economists, educations, and philosophers of that era, like French mathematician Rene Descartes and later psychologist B.F Skinner, “stripped nature of its aliveness, reducing both creation and all creatures, into mathematical and mechanical analogues.” (Rifkin, 1995, pp 43-44).

Or as Thomas Carlyle declared in 1829, “Were we required to characterize this age of ours by any single epithet we should be tempted to call it, the age of machinery in every outward and inward sense of the word. Men have grown mechanical in head and heart, as well as in hand.” (Carlyle, 1997, pp. 229-231)

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, nature was no longer our source of sustenance, but became a resource to be conquered and used for the progress of mankind. We no longer considered ourselves part of the nature world, but as adversaries to its forces that must be tamed, measured, dissected, and harnessed for our use.

We didn't always shop 'til we drop; we've been entrained to over-consume.

Considering that just a little over one hundred years ago half of the U.S. population still lived on farms or in small towns, the gulf between ourselves and the natural environment has grown far wider in the 20th Century as the U.S. shifted from a producer culture to a consumer culture. Rifkin points out how during this time natural human desire, or our natural attraction to life around us, was intentionally manipulated so we would begin wanting things other than what we actually wanted. The result has been a convoluted way of thinking that has magnified over the last century to its pinnacle today.

Rifkin documents how at the turn of the last century, economists noticed that “most working people were content to earn just enough income to provide for their basic needs and a few luxuries, after which they preferred increased leisure time over additional work hours and extra income.” But if the economy was to continue to grow, they concluded, people had to “want things.” So they launched a concerted commercial campaign to convince us that we needed to buy more and more things. And within only a couple of decades, the “dissatisfied consumer” was born.

This shift was accomplished by massive advertising efforts in which “home-grown,” “natural,” and “handmade” items were denigrated while the “store-bought” and “factory-made” ones were extolled. Once “frugal Americans were converted into a hedonist culture in search of every new avenue of instant gratification.” (Rifkin, 1995, p 19-23)

By 1929, Herbert Hoover’s Committee on Recent Economic Changes reached a glowing conclusion that their surveys “proved conclusively … that wants are insatiable. … Economically we have a boundless field.” (Recent Economic Changes, 1929, p xv).

Until the recent financial breakdown, it appeared he'd gotten that right. As of last year there were 22.2 square feet of commercial shopping space per person in the US compared to 2 and 3 square feet per person in other first world countries.

But How Could This Happen? Surely We Know What We Want

We do, but not if we're convinced otherwise. Recent discoveries in neuroscience suggest how such hijacking of human desires occurs. The neural systems of the human brain that detect and evaluate social reward circuits are located in the mid-region of our brain where they generally operate outside of our conscious awareness. So, as reporter Sandra Blakeslee concludes in her review of this research in the New York Times, February, 19, 2002, “In navigating the world and deciding what is rewarding, humans are closer to zombies than sentient beings much of the time.”

Neuroscientists now believe that since we are highly social beings, our brains are shaped from infancy according to what we encounter in the external world. From an ecopsychology point of view this means that by spending 90% of our time in an indoor manmade world, we become disconnected from the natural sensory attractions that would subconsciously direct us to what is best for our well-being, as separate from what would benefit the economy. Instead of attaching to nature’s natural ways, the brain easily attaches to the social rewards defined by our consumer society, as well as to addictions that help ease the pain of our disconnection from our true desires.

By using magnetic imagining scanners, California Institute of Technology neuroscientists Steve Quartz and Annette Asp are observing the effects of advertising on the human brain. Their findings further explain how we end up not knowing what we need, much less knowing how to fulfill our needs. It seems that networks of neurons in our brain act in concert in response to experience. So, just as practicing the piano or learning to read physically alters areas of the cerebral cortex, intense, repetitive marketing can do more than change our minds. It may alter the brain itself.
[1] We are not only what we eat, but also what we hear, see, and otherwise experience most often.

Armed with this information marketers have become ever more sophisticated at -- to use their term – "branding our brains" with what’s called neuro-marketing techniques.

The Painful Result

Once we disconnect from our natural attractions, our desires become insatiable because they’re not what we really want. No matter how much we consume, we remain dissatisfied. In a hopeless effort to consume enough to feel fulfilled, we consume more and more, so we have become the richest nation in the world, but not any happier.

As psychologists David Myers and Ed Diener wrote:

"People have not become happier over time as their cultures have become more affluent. Even though Americans earn twice as much in today’s dollars as they did in 1957, the proportion of those telling surveyors they are “very happy” has declined from 35-29 percent. Even very rich people are only slightly happier than the average American. Those whose incomes had increased over a 10-year period are not any happier than those whose income is stagnant. Indeed, in most nations the correlation between income and happiness is negligible – only in the poorest countries … is income a good measure of emotional well being."

David Blanchflower, professor of economics and associate dean of the faculty of social sciences at Dartmouth College points out from his review of dozens of surveys, “Even as many people have grown richer, they’ve also grown less secure and less satisfied because of relentless competition that forces us to work harder and puts our jobs in constant danger.” (Blanceflower, 2001)

In his book The High Prince of Materialism, Tim Kasser (2002, p 8-9) presents a formidable body of research that highlights what for most of us is a counter-intuitive fact: Merely aspiring to have greater wealth or more material possessions is likely to be associated with increased personal unhappiness,” including more symptoms of anxiety, a greater risk of depression, and more frequent somatic irritations, watching watch more television, using more drugs, and having more impoverished personal relationships.

Making matters much worse, as we produce and consume more, we also consume natural resources faster than they can be replenished and we create vast amounts of waste, garbage, pollution and other fall out that damages the natural environment and has resulted in the energy depletion and climate issues we face today.

Is it any wonder that 49% of Americans have voluntarily made changes in their lifestyle over the past five years to earn less in exchange for a better way of life and that most of them happy with this change?
[3] Now as we begin to wake up to the disconnect from our natural inclinations, more of us are in the process of making substantial changes. In addition the economy is forcing others of us to make similar changes, albeit sometimes unwillingly.

Reconnecting with Nature Can Help Us Make This Shift

The same information that explains how our brains get hijacked into thinking we want the opposite of what we really want and need also points the way for how we can take back our brains. If the neural networks that define what we want are shaped by what we experience, we can re-shape them by reconnecting with nature and re-experiencing our natural desires and attractions. Organic psychologist Dr. Michael Cohen’s Natural Systems Thinking Process (NSTP) is designed to enable us to do that. NSTP provides a specific way to go into nature where we can enjoy culturally unmediated experiences and thus rewire our brains to consciously reconnect our neural reward circuits to natural as opposed to artificially induced attractions.

By spending time relating to nature in specifically defined ways, be it in an urban park, a remote wilderness, a backyard garden or with a potted plant in the kitchen windowsill, we can become aware again of our natural attractions and experience the difference between natural and artificially manipulated rewards. With this sensory awareness intact, we can also begin to reconnect with our natural attractions in other areas of life.

Representative comments from those who have used NSTP are evidence of the positive life-changing effects this process can have:

“These activities helped to make clear the gap between the part of me that lives in my stories of who I need to be and the part of me who knows who I truly am.”

“Immediately from doing this activity I had the sense that I was part of everything, not an alien here. It increased my feeling of self worth.”

“This is who I really am (we all are) at my core beyond what modern society has "taught" me to be.”

“This activity led me to feel that I can trust letting go of all my inner debris, allowing my emotions to be washed away to their organic place in the universe. Nature transforms them to beneficial energy. What remains are my roots, my trunks of strength, my rocks embedded in Mother Earth. This is my core essence, yet all is intertwined and constantly progressively changing. I can remember this place even when I am in my car rushing around the outskirts of this oasis and once again connect.”

“In those moments in nature all was right with me and with the world and I felt merged into all things.”

“I find myself singing, even dancing, through the day when relating to or engaging in these particular activities. This is in contrast to pushing or forcing myself to complete other activities because I will like the result some time later.”

“I can use examples in nature to describe and define parts of myself when with others. I can use these same examples to better understand the core of other people. I can feel more fully connected to a person by sharing our mutual experience with a part of nature. The experiences don’t have to be the same, but the fact that we both have them gives us something in common to each other and nature – like the root systems of the aspens!”

Resources and References

The Continuum Concept, In Search of Happiness Lost by Jean Liedloff. New York: Da Capo. 1996.

Ecological Psychology by Roger G. Barker. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1968.Education and the Cult of Efficiency by Raymond Callahan. University of Chicago Press, 1964, pp. 50-51.

Educating, Counseling and Healing with Nature by Michael J. Cohen. Institute for Global Education, 2008.

“High Cost of Success” by David Blanchflower. USA Today, January, 2001.

The End of Work, The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post Market Era by Jeremy Rifkin. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1995.

The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser. MIT Press, 2002.

“Hijacking the Brain Circuits with a Nickel Slot Machine” by Sandra Blakeslee. New York Times, February, 19, 2002.

“Marketing Might Brand the Brain” by Robert Lee Hotz. Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2005.
“Signs of the Times” by Thomas Carlyle. Edinburgh Review 49, June 1829, pp. 239-359, reprinted in abridged version as “The Mechanical Age: in Clayre, Alasdair, ed. Nature and Industrialization: An Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)\. Recent Economic Changes, Committee of Recent Economic Changes. New York, 1929).

Reconnecting with Nature, Finding Wellness through Restoring Your Bond with the Earth by Michael J. Cohen. Corvallis, Oregon: Ecopress, 1997.


[1] “Marketing Might Brand the Brain,” by Robert Lee Holtz, Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2005.
[2] The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser. MIT Press, 2002, p 3.
[3] “The American Dream Survey,” Center for a New American Dream Widmeyer Research and Polling, August, 2004.

(c) Sarah Anne Edwards, 2009

Read more!